By Ken Ward Jr.
Why does West Virginia's timber industry mostly consist of loggers and sawmills? Why doesn't the state have many furniture factories?
Forestry professors have made a career of trying to answer these questions. Governor after governor has faced the problem. Businessmen scratch their heads when confronted with this quandary.
Over the years, a list of possible answers has been compiled. Basically, they point to problems that make production costs higher in West Virginia than in surrounding states, making location here less desirable. Among the problems commonly cited:
- Transportation - Problems with West Virginia's road system have become legendary. Loggers in the state can't avoid the fact that heavy, bulky lumber must be hauled over winding, narrow roads. In many places, bridges are not sturdy enough to carry huge log trucks safely.
Industry experts say this situation has improved over the years. Many support construction of Corridor H from Elkins to Virginia as a further improvement that could help the timber industry.
- The West Virginia Development Office says it is disadvantaged because of the furniture industry's reliance on trade shows in North Carolina.
Twice each year, producers, buyers and others connected with the furniture industry gather in the High Point-Winston Salem area of North Carolina to display their wares and take and place orders for the coming season. These shows give the western Carolin a and Virginia areas a distinct advantage as a location for this industry.
- Others have pointed to a lack of training of West Virginia workers in woodworking skills required for furniture factories and other secondary wood processing businesses.
- Mingo County coal and timber baron Buck Harless blames the lack of furniture factories on West Virginia's reputation for labor disputes and a high level of unionization among workers.
Harless believes this image is no longer accurate, particularly as the labor movement has lost political power and membership, but continues to plague state development efforts.
- David E. White, a former West Virginia University forest economist, blames a more complicated combination of wages and transportation problems.
It costs more to transport timber products from rural timber counties like Webster or Randolph, so furniture plants would be better off in areas like Charleston, with interstate highways and river barge transportation.
But wages are higher in Kanawha County than in rural, timber counties. Low wages in those rural counties have helped make their sawmills competitive and offset high transportation costs for raw lumber. This hasn't been the case for secondary wood process ing.
"In short, the comparative advantage that West Virginia has for the primary processing of timber products does not exist for secondary processing," White wrote in 1994.
"West Virginia has not been able to meet the industry's low cost requirements for both transportation and labor conterminously," he wrote. "The result is that much of the state's primary wood products have been shipped for final processing to places outs ide West Virginia where these two conditions are better met."
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